Shine the light: Q&A with Neon Play's Oli Christie

Shine the light: Q&A with Neon Play's Oli Christie

Oli Christie, founder of one of the UK’s top mobile gaming companies, talks to Philip Jones about pricing, his company’s acquisition by Hachette and building book apps.

Philip Jones You founded Neon Play in 2010, what was the business proposition?
Oli Christie I had spent 11 years working as a creative director in digital marketing agencies, specialising in viral games for big global brands. When the iPhone was launched, it was clear that you could monetise fun mobile games, such as Angry Birds, so I took the leap to start my own games studio making fun, casual games.

PJ How did it work out?
OC Within two years, we achieved 60 million downloads and were recognised as one of the top 50 mobile game studios. It was a booming market and we were there in the relatively early days. We now employ 25+ staff in our stunning studio in Cirencester, Gloucestershire.

PJ What’s your most successful product?
OC The Traffic Panic series started off as a really basic, top-down traffic-light controlling game. Since then we have launched two much more highly visual games [in the series]. Together they’ve had 20 million players enjoy a billion games. It helped put us on the map, and we’re making another Traffic Panic game now.

PJ How has the market changed?
OC It’s changed beyond all comprehension. The monetisation has gone from small, paid-for games to high-quality, visually stunning games that are free. This has opened up gaming to hundreds of millions of players who wouldn’t have thought of themselves as “gamers”, and the revenue some games are making is phenomenal: Candy Crush and Clash of Clans were making $1m–$3m a day; Pokémon Go reached $16m a day at its peak.

PJ What have you learned about the value of content and the price consumers will pay?
OC Changing to a “freemium” model, where users pay for content through in-app purchases, meant many more people would download games as there was no barrier to entry. With free games, you are looking to monetise 2%–5% of your audience, but this can earn you much more than paid-for apps. What you need, though, are deep, engaging games with content that retains players for weeks and months.

PJ Which book apps do you rate?
OC I’m enjoying the apps that take storytelling into a new dimension. Apps like Hooked, Lifeline and Reigns are using smartphones in original ways; what’s interesting, though, is that these are all developed by small, nimble companies.

PJ What can publishers learn from games and the way you’ve developed your business?
OC The analytics that we use are incredible: we know so much about our audience, what they’re doing, how long they’re playing, where they’re dropping off, what they’re spending on, so we can really tailor content to them. In publishing, once a book is launched that is generally it, but we launch games as a “service”, so we keep updating them with new content and improvements to help retain players. It’s a different mindset, but this is what monetises best.

PJ What is the opportunity for Hachette in acquiring Neon Play?
OC Hachette wanted to expand and diversify into areas outside of books and quite rightly saw that mobile gaming is a massive market. In discussions with Tim Hely Hutchinson and his team, it was clear that culturally Neon Play and Hachette are very similar and we shared the same vision for creating IP that had big revenue potential. Games use storytelling too, so it’s not a massive leap, it’s just storytelling in a different industry.

PJ And the opportunity for Neon Play?
OC Small gaming companies like Neon Play are usually acquired by big gaming companies. Hachette allows us to focus on what we love, which is creating our own IP and games, but as a parent company it offers other avenues through its authors, brands and partners. Everyone at Hachette has been incredibly supportive and receptive to what we’re doing. We’re learning a lot from each other. It feels like a genuinely open and productive partnership that is pretty unique in the book (and gaming) industry. It feels fun and challenging to try something different too.

PJ At FutureBook you’ll talk about opportunities for book content outside of “the book”: what might the first Hachette/ Neon Play product look like?
OC We are in discussion about a selection of projects either using Hachette brands, authors or partnerships, but I’m afraid it’s all under wraps. But we’re confident that working with Hachette is going to open some unique opportunities that will benefit both parties. It should be a very exciting few years ahead.

Neon Play founder Oli Christie will speak at The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference on 2nd December in London. For more information and tickets click here.